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Don Antonio, a farmer and resident of Valle Nuevo, El Salvador. (Courtesy of Mark Menjivar)

After Years In Exile, They Returned

by Coburn Dukehart
Dec 19, 2012

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Coburn Dukehart

Photographer Mark Menjivar has spent five years exploring the concept of returning home. His portraits of former Salvadoran refugees delve deep into the yearning of the human spirit to return to one's homeland, even after many years away.

Many of the people in these portraits lived in a Honduran refugee camp called Mesa Grande from 1980-1989, during El Salvador's civil war, leaving and returning under threat of extreme violence, both from their own government and a guerrilla group called the FMLN.

Menjivar's photos explore what has happened in the years since their return — both to the refugees, and to their children.

To Menjivar, the desire to understand their story is deeply personal, and requires some historical context:

Menjivar's father, Col. Milton Menjivar, was head of the U.S. military in El Salvador during the late '80s, and the two lived together in San Salvador during a period of intense urban fighting. At the time, the U.S. was backing the Salvadoran government against the FMNL.

As Menjivar grew up, he began to question his father's role in the civil war, and engaged him in a number of discussions about his family's legacy.

Still curious, Menjivar returned in 2009 with World Hunger Relief to document a community of repatriated Mesa Grande refugees. That's when this project, Retorno, was born.

"[You] know, you read about refugees," he says on the phone, "but what happens 10 years after, 20, 30 — seeing the next generation is very interesting to me."

Menjivar has since made five trips to Santa Marta and Valle Nuevo, two of the repatriated communities. And he's made portraits of three distinct groups: the refugees who returned, youth running a sustainable organic farm, and young adults studying at the National University in San Salvador.

His portraits are a collaboration — he asks people to show him a place that's important to them in their history, and then listens to their stories as he makes the photos. He says he sees it as "making the portraits together."

Menjivar is ultimately fascinated in exploring not only the history of the refugees, but his own personal story as well — and within both, the power of a place that draws one to return.

(To see some historical pictures of the repatriation, check out these images by photographer Linda Hess Miller taken in 1987.)

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